Walsh is president of the COPD Foundation, a D.C.-based organization aimed at finding cures and treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis. November is National COPD Awareness Month.

How big of a problem is COPD?

It's the third-leading cause of death in America today. It's the second-leading cause of disability, and it costs $51 billion [per year] for direct and indirect health care costs. An individual with COPD dies every four minutes. It kills more Americans each year than breast cancer and diabetes combined.

What causes it?

Ninety percent of cases in the U.S. are a direct result of tobacco exposure. In the developing world, biomass exposure is a big issue. In the workplace, exposure to dust, pollutants, fertilizers, and chemicals are causes. There's also a genetic form.

Is the problem getting better or worse?

We're in a full-blown epidemic. We just went from fourth-largest cause of death to number three, and it's going to be the third-leading cause of death worldwide by 2020. In the U.S., even though we've had a decreased amount of smoking, we had a lot of people who smoked that are going to be challenged by it. The report of early diagnosis is key. In the developing world, cigarette smoking is on the rise and there's more potential for biomass fuel exposure.

Can it be prevented?

It's almost always preventable, mostly treatable, someday curable. Typical symptoms are shortness of breath, frequent coughs, lung infections. A lot of the times people just think it's part of the aging process and they don't think of getting the lungs tested.

What is being done to fight it?

We have a national public awareness campaign known as DRIVE4COPD featuring Danica Patrick [whose grandmother died of COPD], and we tested over 2.6 million Americans to identify their risk by answering five simple questions at drive4copd.org. Our challenge is to take action today to breathe better tomorrow.